No trip to Paris is complete without a night out at the theater or to a Paris music performance. Caroline Nin, a cabaret singer on the scene since the 1980s, has created a tribute to that most beloved of Parisian musical artists, the national treasure Edith Piaf, in a new bilingual performance guaranteed to delight Paris music fans, jazz lovers and Francophiles alike, in “Hymne à Piaf.”
Set in the underground, stone-arched cave of the Théâtre de l’Essaïon, the intimate space welcomes spectators into a curve semicircling the stage. A pianist and cellist begin by gently playing a few notes until Nin emerges from the darkness into a pool of blue light. Once the spotlight falls on her face, Nin smiles with relief as though she has just located her lover across the room, and her clear-as-water voice launches into “Les mots d’amour.”
This is not an Edith Piaf impression, thankfully. Instead, Nin’s carefully arranged performance attempts only to pay tribute to the tragic, heroic chanteuse, bringing Piaf’s adored songs into the 21st century, transcending into sensual, emotive contemporary jazz as Nin reaches for the audience with her arms and her voice, playing with the notes and commanding her accompaniment with decisive flicks of her finger or flattened hand.
In such close quarters, Nin is free to address the audience conversationally, as though they’re all friends who’ve come over for a drink and she’s welcoming them with the gift of music. Before each song, Nin tells the story behind each forthcoming French tune in English, an enhancement that transforms the performance into something beyond a mere concert. Regardless of what the audience does or doesn’t know about Piaf, Nin ensures that everyone in attendance can experience the music with a deeper understanding of the pain or love behind each word.
Incredibly, the bilingual element of “Hymne à Piaf” adds new dimension to the music, rather than distracting or removing even an ounce of charm. Indeed, this mode of storytelling is completely integral to the enchantment of the experience.
Beneath rose-colored light, Nin presses her hands together and recites Piaf’s prayer to be with her lover “un jour, deux jours, toujours,” for enough time to create memories, to begin, to end, to illuminate each other and, finally, to hate each other. “mon dieu,” she whispers before embarking on the song of the same name.
In true theatrical cabaret form, Nin and her collaborators have done a lot with the small space they have. The simplicity of the stage gives Piaf’s music room to shine, while Nin’s monochromatic appearance serves as a canvas for dramatic colored light that pours onto her like a different dress for each song. Save for her glittery red nails and bold red lipstick, each element of Nin’s appearance is desaturated, from her platinum-blond bob to her pale flesh poured into a structured black and white bustier and miniskirt, to her black fishnets and sky-high heels, to the poignant detail of solitary rhinestones glued beneath each eye, catching the light like glittering crocodile tears.
Nin’s skintight outfit highlights every pronounced, heaving breath as she poses like a sculpture, singing about lost loves and prostitutes, bathed in a glowing, Pigalle-red light. Though she’s not pretending to be Edith Piaf, Caroline Nin is clearly channeling the power Piaf wrought from pain, the energy she gained from love even if it was lost. Nin’s own posture and poise suggest the kind of strength that can only be gained through true, raw living.
Nin charms, engages and flirts with the audience. Her piercing, evocative voice is surely well trained, but the fun in listening to her arrives when she finds room for creativity in playing with the songs. When her notes are soft, as in her heartfelt, chills-inducing version of “La vie en rose,” she creates an intimacy that draws the crowd in closer, to the edges of their seats. When she bursts forth in song, as she does during her closing number, a rousing, anthemic rendition of “Non, je ne regrette rien,” her voice is open to the world, revealing an honestly joyous, dedicated performer. And when the lights cut out dramatically at the end of the show, all that can be heard is round after round of applause and cries of “Brava! Brava, encore!” Piaf herself would be proud.
Nin performs “Hymne à Piaf” every Wednesday at 8 p.m. at le Théâtre de l’Essaïon. The show has been extended through November.
Théâtre de l’Essaïon
6, rue Pierre au Lard, in the 4th Arrondissement.
French box office: 01 42 78 46 43.
English box office: 07 77 25 37 64.
Editor’s note: Caroline has offered a special deal for GG2P Travel Club members only at the Passport and le Club levels. Tickets are normally 20 euros each, but our members receive them for 15 euros each. To reserve, please send an e-mail to [email protected] for the special code and have your membership number available.